The north quince has to go!
Hack out north quince,'' reads my gardening calendar's entry for today. I vaguely remember jotting down that reminder sometime last fall when I was garden-weary and the north quince's naked spines looked too threatening to take on. A gardening calendar is a reckoning: You commit your sober intentions to it, forgetting that the day will come when you flip a page and out they pop like recriminations.
Hack out north quince? Perhaps I counted on prespring exuberance to see me through the prickly chore. But I certainly hadn't counted on the north quince blooming today. It doesn't make my task easier.
I'm not an indiscriminate hacker. The south quince, whose site was carefully chosen, flourishes under my pruning care. Each spring it repays me with the garden's first splash of color: thousands of scarlet-orange cups, each brimming with puffs of gold pollen. And each fall, it yields enough fruit to season the cider. Emerson would approve of such beauty and ''commodity'' combined; the north quince has neither.
Besides, it's a squatter. It sneaks uninvited into a chink in the retaining wall only three feet from the house. During fall storms, it leans over the kitchen window and runs its nails down the glass like the naughty kid at the blackboard when Teacher's back is turned. If only it would bloom with the healthy flush and bounty of the south quince. But in the house's north shadow, it manages only a few anemic blooms, their stamens as thin and translucent as uncooked Chinese bean threads. By midsummer, the north quince is only a thorny tangle from which pale, stunted leaves hang like tattered cloth.
It has to go. Still, you don't hack out a quince without a twinge of conscience. So I review its crimes: An eyesore, it's a terror to women's stockings and the car's new paint job. The north quince has no redeeming value. Verdict upheld: It has to go.
This morning, dressed in two layers to confound the spines, I stand in the kitchen, fix myself a second cup of herb tea, and oil my shears, wondering if the mattock will have to take over at ground level. I glance out the window. Usually, I don't notice the puny tangle of branches outside the glass; I peer right through them to the clay bank where a doe sometimes lingers, deciding whether my roses are worth the risk. But no deer today; instead, I'm acutely aware of the spider-web pattern of quince limbs.
I look away, but not before carrying off a surprising after-image: a flash of vermilion hovers just outside the glass. A swatch of a friend's hemline caught on a quince-thorn? I look back. A blaze of red streaks a few feet off then pulses midair: a bright ball in a miracle of motion. I make out its small head with a needle bill.
The year's first ruby-throated hummingbird - so welcome yet unexpected a visitor. I am stunned to the marrow by the honor. We eye each other a moment. But the hummingbird has other tasks. Flick. It has moved into shadow and the vermilion vanishes. Flick. It's back in the light, its throat blazing brighter than south quince blossom. But it's the north quince the bird has chosen, streaking from one pale bloom to the next.
Suddenly it returns: a meteor diving straight for the window. It pulls up a feather's flutter from crashing. Again it hovers just inches from the glass, eyeing me. A long, bold look. Minutes earlier, I was the judge and jury; now I feel like the one on trial.
The hummingbird returns to each blossom. Surely there can be no nectar in such pale blooms that have never produced fruit. What does it find that I can't? All at once it's back at the window, taking a last, long look at me before it's gone.
An hour later, one layer of clothing peeled off, I still have not left the house. Again I confront my gardening calendar. In today's space, I've crossed out something and written in its place, ''miraculously early: year's first hummingbird.'' Then, I'm flipping ahead, checking those future tasks I've assigned myself. They stack atop one another all spring and summer, thin out in September, disappear altogether in October.
I grope in the drawer for a pen. Before I realize it, I've chosen a date in mid-October and jotted down a reminder to myself, a pledge to the hummingbird.
''Prune quinces, south and north.''